Some sins just keep coming back.
My hands paused at the keyboard. Was that someone at my door?
I peered out into the hallway. Nobody there. Back to typing. Tappety-tap.
The same noise came again. A sort of shuffle, like a shoe against the floor. Probably just the air conditioning system, but it was distracting. I got up to close the door —
And almost collided with a human body. "Peter! What are you doing out here? Are you stalking me?"
"No! I — gosh. No, no. Sorry. I — gosh. Sorry. I —"
"Relax, Peter, I'm joking. I eyed him. "You're lurking, though, aren't you? Why don't you just come in?"
Sheepishly, he accepted the invitation. "I was trying to get up the nerve."
"Am I so formidable? You've never been afraid of me before."
"It isn't you. It's what I want you to do."
"Do you need a letter of recommendation or something?"
"No. I want you to pray for me." He turned pink.
He nodded. "That is, if you don't mind."
"Certainly, but —"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know it's a lot of trouble. I probably shouldn't even —"
I smiled. "Peter, it's no trouble at all. I was only going to say, 'Certainly, but about what?'"
"About — what?"
I nodded. "First word, 'about,' preposition. Second word, 'what,' interrogative pronoun. What would you like me to pray for you about?"
"I'm not sure that I want to tell you."
"Then don't. I'll pray a very general prayer, just asking God to bless you. Will that do?"
He hesitated. "I need a very specific kind of help."
"God knows what you need, Peter."
"That's true. Still. I wish you could — well — maybe I should tell you after all. Will this be confidential?"
"Of course." I swept my hand toward the wall. "No listening devices. No sound recorders. No bugs. Now what is this about?"
"I want you to pray for me for deliverance."
"Yes. I've got a problem with a — I don't know what to call it — a comeback sin."
"What do you mean by a 'comeback' sin? Do you mean an old sin you thought you had conquered sin, that has come back to trouble you again?"
"No, it's a new one. For me. But it does keep coming back. I'm talking about the kind of sin where — well — you do it, you repent, you do it again, you repent again — in tears, even — but you do it again anyway. Where you can't seem to get off the treadmill."
"That used to be called a 'besetting' sin."
"You understand, then?"
"I think so. The Apostle Paul even talks about it. 'I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.'"
"Yeah — Romans 7. I've been reading it over and over. A morose passage, that one."
"I wouldn't say that. It begins morosely, but it ends on a note of joy."
"He says 'Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?' You call that joyful?"
"But he answers his own question, doesn't he? 'Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!'"
"I believe that, Professor Theophilus. Really I do. But at the moment, I'm not experiencing it."
I was silent for a moment. "Paul doesn't say that deliverance will be easy or quick."
"No. That's why I asked you to pray for me. For the Holy Spirit to deliver me from my — um — besetting sin."
"I will. Count on it."
"Is there anything else I can do?"
He hesitated. "Yes."
"I know I'm not giving you much to go on, but — do you have any advice?"
I considered. "Maybe. It would have to be very general advice."
"You mean because you don't know what my besetting sin is?"
"Right. And because there are a lot of other things I don't know about you. And a lot of things about God that I don't yet understand."
"Anything would help."
"For what it's worth, then. First, Peter, you're not alone in this. A lot of people go through what you're going through."
"You're saying this is common?"
"Sure. For one person, resentment may be a besetting sin. It gnaws at him. He forgives and forgives, but his heart keeps returning to its bitterness. For another person, vanity may be a besetting sin. Try as he may to think about other things, his thoughts keep coming back to what other people are thinking about him. Or the problem may have to do with envy, with sex, with hot temper, with spiritual pride — wherever your weakness is, that's where the Adversary will goad you."
"That sounds obvious now that you say it, but I hadn't thought about it."
"Did you think you were the only person who struggles?"
"I guess I did. But Prof, why is this happening? I could understand if I was like I was before —"
"What do you mean, 'like it was before'?"
"Don't you remember the last time I talked to you?"
I smiled. "About trying not to long for Christ too much?"
"Yeah. Well, that's over. Now it's just the opposite. I stopped holding back. There's nothing I want more than God. I can't stand it when I disappoint Him. But I'm betraying Him every day."
"Do you think that only people who aren't trying to follow God should suffer besetting sins?"
"Wouldn't that make more sense? Like this. Say some guy goes in heavy for a certain kind of sin. He never gives a thought to seeking God. Then he changes. He yields to Christ. He becomes a Christian, or maybe, if he was an unserious Christian before, he becomes a serious Christian. Okay, those old habits will probably weigh him down, right? Getting free of a load like that might take a lot of time, a lot of sweat, and a lot of grace. Right?"
"But I've been pretty serious about my faith for quite a while now. And I never went through that."
"I've sinned sometimes, sure. I've had things to repent, sure. I've had struggles — lots of them — little struggles. But it's not until now that I've been in this kind of battle. I'm trying to follow God more — but it's like I'm getting worse. How can that even happen? It seems impossible."
"Why does it seem impossible?"
"It's obvious. Let me show you." Peter rummaged in his backpack for paper and pencil. He drew an broad triangle, resting on its base with the point sticking upward. "I'm a mountain climber, right? I'm making a spiritual ascent. My artwork isn't good, but this is the mountain."
I smiled. "If you say so."
"No, really. Now look." He made a black scribble at the bottom of the picture. "These are the rocks and boulders and thornbushes and things at the base of the mountain — vices and bad habits and sins. They make it hard to get started. Big struggle. Get what I mean?"
"But look here," he said. He put the tip of the pencil on the side of the triangle, above the scribble. "Once you're past the rocks and all that other junk, the slope is smooth and the going should be steady."
He threw down the pencil, threw himself back in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest. "But the going isn't smooth. I don't get it. It doesn't make sense."
I laughed. "Peter, you haven't proven that the higher you go, the smoother the slope becomes. You've only assumed it. What if the mountain is more like this?" I drew another triangle. "That's the mountain." Instead of making a scribble at the bottom of the picture, like he did, I made one halfway up. "But on this mountain, you don't meet the worse rocks and boulders and thornbushes until you've been climbing a while. See?"
"Or like this," I continued. I drew a shape like the Eiffel Tower — broad at the bottom, sharp at the top. "No rocks, but the higher you climb, the steeper the slope."
He nodded again.
"Or even like this," I said. I drew another triangle, but this time I erased part of one side and redrew to make a zigzag. Instead of going up, up, up to the apex, the new line went up, then down, then back up again. "This mountain is the trickiest of all. Halfway up the slope, there's a crevasse. An unwary may climb a thousand feet, take a false step, and fall all the way to the bottom."
I glanced over to Peter. This time he didn't nod. He looked at me aghast. "If it's like that," he said, "how can you smile about it? And what can you do?"
PART 2: The Comeback Sin »
Copyright 2006 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.